This month, the name for our regular feature needs to be amended a bit because this isn’t a pure “Super to Super” conversation, but rather one between a super (me) and a super who’s gone on to become, among many other things, a Ph.D., golf course architect, author, environmental leader, and prestigious award winner.
The man behind that weighty title is an unassuming guy who goes by Mike—Dr. Michael Hurdzan—who this spring was presented the Donald Ross Award by the American Society of Golf Course Architects. Over the years I’ve come to know Mike through his involvement with the Environmental Institute for Golf (where he was a past Chairman), as well as through visits he’s made to my course and work he’s done with colleagues, such as Tommy Witt at Northmoor CC (“Super to Super,” C&RB, October 2006).
I also knew that Mike began his career as a superintendent, before going on to earn a Masters in Turfgrass Managemant and Ph.D. in Environmental Plant Physiology, and then starting a highly successful career in golf course architecture (he is now Principal of Hurdzan/Fry Golf Course Design in Columbus, Ohio). And looking at the full list of Ross Award winners—pretty much a “Who’s Who” of Golf, including names like Jack Nicklaus, Byron Nelson, Arnold Palmer, Pete Dye, and Robert Trent Jones—it appears that Mike is the only one on the list who began his career in our profession.
So I decided it would be OK to stretch the “Super to Super” concept a little this month, so we could all benefit from the insights that someone with Mike Hurdzan’s background and expertise can offer.
Q Mike, what got you interested in getting into this industry, and specifically what led to your start as a superintendent?
A I’m not sure whether I selected a life in golf, or it selected me, but golf—and golf courses—have always seemed to be the center of my world. My dad was a club teaching pro, so I grew up on the golf course, starting as a shag boy at seven years old, a caddy at nine, and a greenkeeper at 13. And I loved every minute of it.
The golf course where my dad—and then I—worked was Beacon Light Golf Course in Columbus, Ohio. And the man who owned it was Jack Kidwell, a former Ohio high school state champion who went on to become not only a Class “A” PGA Pro, but also a Class “A” GCSAA Superintendent and golf course architect. He would eventually become my partner and the President of the American Society of Golf Course Architects, before his death in 2001.
Not long after I started working at Mr. Kidwell’s course, I told him that I, too, wanted to design golf courses. So he became my “second dad” and mentor. I worked for him for nine seasons—five as greenkeeper, two as an assistant super, and two as superintendent—before leaving for grad school. Upon my return in 1972, we formed Kidwell and Hurdzan.
Q How has starting out as a superintendent influenced your approach to golf course design?
A Because of my background, I think I have always designed with a perspective for the maintenance that will be required to keep a course playing as conceived, and also for keeping the golf course as environmentally friendly as practical.
Q A recent survey indicated that golfers would favor a well-maintained course over other, less-maintained courses. But superintendents are still under a lot of pressure to produce more with less money. What can you suggest to help address this dilemma?
A My suggestion is to prioritize, organize, and communicate:
Prioritize your maintenance focus to the things that make the greatest impact on the greatest number of golfers, namely greens, bunkers and hazards, trees, fairways and rough, in that order.
Then organize your resources of manpower, machines, materials, and time to address these priorities. You can only do so much with what you have, and documenting those limitations is important for my next suggestion:
Communicate, to let your bosses, and your customers, know what your priorities are. This should include clearly communicating the target maintenance standards you have established for each of them—mowing greens five days per week, keeping average speed at 9.5, aerifying and topdressing four times per year, etc.
You should also communicate about what you were unable to accomplish, because of lack of resources, weather, or the limitations of the course infrastructure, such as an antiquated pump station, lack of irrigation water, or other easy-to-understand, but real, reasons.
As a military officer (I retired as a Colonel with the Special Forces Branch), I had to annually—sometimes quarterly—justify the activities of my unit and myself, so my bosses could evaluate my leadership and effectiveness. And I required that of my staff as well.
Many times, offering to meet with a committee, or having an open meeting with golfers, gives you a chance to subtly make your case. If a picture is worth a thousand words, then buy a camera, learn to use Photoshop, and capture those “Kodak moments,” both good and bad, for your show and tell. And be sure to brag a little, but always in a professional way.
Q My grandfather—the first of three generations of my family in this profession—told me that as a greenkeeper, there are two things you should always have—a nursery where you can grow putting-green turf (not only for repairs but also to try new things) and a long-range plan.
For the first part of this, especially given your academic background in turfgrass management and plant physiology, do you think superintendents are doing enough to take the lead in developing new turfs and techniques that can help you design better courses?
A All of the most successful superintendents I have known over the past 50-plus years have a turf nursery for repairs and/or a small research plot where they do their own testing. In fact, some of the best information I have found comes from looking at superintendents’ “experiments,” because they are always concerned with applied research, and not just the theoretical or conceptual type.
Yes, the “pure academics” may think it’s a stretch to call what’s going on in superintendents’ turf nurseries “research,” because it doesn’t have the replication, randomization, and statistical analysis they like to see. But what’s learned in these settings is a better reflection of the water quality of that particular course, the routine maintenance, the products and procedures used, specific weather patterns and turf types.
Any superintendent at a course that is considering rebuilding tees or greens, or switching to a new turf cultivar, should build a test plot to evaluate all of the options and help to find the “best” solution.
Q And what about the second part of what my grandfather told me: How should superintendents get involved in long-range planning to study infrastructure issues like drainage and irrigation, or other safety, agronomic or environmental issues, so those findings can be dovetailed with the design elements needed to have an efficient and cost-effective golf course?
A Aspects of long-range planning where the superintendent needs to be closely involved should include not only all possible improvements to the golf course and practice facilities, but also the parking areas, traffic flow (especially around the clubhouse), all safety issues, drainage, water storage, health or desirability of non-turf vegetation, environmental enhancement opportunities, the maintenance complex, disposal areas, etc.
The full list is exceedingly long, but all of these things have to be considered sooner or later, so they should at least be brought up during the master or improvement planning of the golf course. Not having a master plan is like going on a journey without a map; you may ultimately get to where you want to go, but not without the potential for a lot of wasted time, money and effort.
Q Looking at some broader issues, participation in golf today is relatively flat compared to a decade ago. What can superintendents do to help grow the game and make it fun, fair and challenging for a broader group of players? And what are your thoughts on golf course design looking forward?
A For golf to continue to prosper, the game must stay affordable, accessible and sustainable. The more that any of us can do to reduce the costs involved with building, maintaining and operating golf courses, while still making people of all types feel welcome in a friendly, safe environment, the more the game will grow.
The recent flat growth of golf in North America is not because people don’t want the healthy, clean benefits that golf has to offer. Mandatory cart use, unneeded levels of service, unreasonable rules and restrictions, and fostering an elitist image have all worked against the growth of the game.
Superintendents can specifically help make the game more friendly and fun for beginners or seniors by creating forward tee markers, wider landing areas, lower primary rough heights, and fewer mandatory carries. Training your staff to be firm, but friendly, will also help to make everyone’s golf experience more enjoyable, too.
Q Multiple tees of various distances, well-designed practice facilities, and contoured fairways all seem to fit more into today’s golf market and design. How can superintendents gain support to improve the course where needed?
A Over the past 20 or 25 years, the practice and teaching facilities of a golf course have become much more important. There are many reasons for this. Some golfers want to work on improving their games, others use the practice facility to satisfy a “golf urge” in less time than it takes to play a round, and also, more non-golfers are emerging who want to learn the game. So properly run, these facilities can be another profit center for the operator.
Similarly golfers have become more sophisticated and discerning in their tastes because of golf vacations, golf magazines and articles, the Golf Channel and TV golf. With such a competitive golf marketplace, if one facility doesn’t meet all of a customer’s needs, they will look for another one.
The golf course superintendent must find ways to work within his budget to deliver a superior product. Examples might be contoured mowing lines, raking patterns into bunkers, coordinating hole locations and tee markers with weather conditions or skill level of players, landscaping where appropriate, etc. There are no easy answers, but the superintendent has to be constantly looking for ways to distinguish his golf course.